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An Interview with Gemma Lees, author of 1000 years

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Gemma Lees is a Romany Gypsy, disabled and neurodiverse fine art installationist, performance poet, actor, facilitator, journalist and theatre-maker from Bury, Lancashire. Her practise focuses on protest, advocacy and telling the stories that no one else is. In 2023 she worked with The Turnpike Gallery, Told By An Idiot, The Vegetarian Society magazine, Naked Productions, BEAM2023, Graeae Theatre Company, Haphazard Festival, BBC Radio Manchester, The Lowry Cultural Comedy Tours, Theatre Deli and CRIPtic. She’s a core team member of Girl Gang Manchester and creator and facilitator of their monthly writer’s group Write Here, Right Now. Her poetry chapbook, 1000 Years will be published by Written Off in February 2025. She’s in the DANC/Triple C focus group for ‘People Who Experience Racism’ and she’s on the Arts and Homelessness International Associate Leadership, Traveller’s Times TT Vision and Factory Fellowship development programmes.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

Over the past two years, I have been on the Traveller’s Times TT Vision programme and becoming a journalist who has found a deep passion and love for well-researched and backed up opinion pieces on topics such as cultural appropriation, not looking ‘Gypsy enough’ for other people and Gypsy, Roma and Traveller inclusion in schools has both intellectualised and consolidated everything I learned by osmosis growing up in a large Gypsy family with a fourth generation storyteller for a dad. I wanted to express through my poetry the beauty of my culture, the richness of my history, the darkness and prevalence of anti-GRT racism and the more silly side of my poetry too, to balance it all out and express my full character.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

1000 years refers to the time period in which Romany Gypsy people fled Northern India due to the invasion of Mahmud of Ghazni, a series of events that lead to us travelling Asia and Europe and my family ending up in Britain. I feel so honoured to have such a rich history and a culture informed by so much travel and so many influences, so the title was very obvious to me from the beginning.

Describe your dream book cover.

I definitely want to incorporate the Romany flag and other Romany Gypsy iconography.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

Everything from traditional Gypsy Jazz to Punk Rock music!

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

Other poetry books soothe my soul and inspire me; I especially love Jackie Kay, my favourite of hers being The Adoption Papers.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

Kids’ party entertainment self-employed at 14 (including a magic show where I was ‘Gemmo The Great’), McDonald’s manager, Saturday girl at a kiosk with lookalike fake designer sunglasses, a dodgy bakery where I once saw the owner beat a mouse with her shoe and my primary job was to grate huge blocks of cheese, New Look, TJ Hughes, several self-employed stalls at markets and carboots, I’ve done a PGDE so spent a year doing teacher training at a college and all manner of jobs within the performing arts.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

I’ve created stories with my dad since I was a kid. I suffered badly with undiagnosed dyslexia but my imagination was spot on. I write for that little girl, I write for catharsis, I write to entertain, I write for my son passing it down another generation, I write because I wouldn’t know what else to do.

Where is your favorite place to write?

In bed! I have a couple of chronic pain conditions so I find this to be the most comfortable place to write. I’m also very much what I call a ‘head writer’. The poem has to be almost complete in my mind before I put it down on paper or type it out, that part of the process is only for very minor tweaks. This is also incredibly odd for how my brain usually works. Turns out I’m both super dyslexic and dyspraxia. I have no sense of direction, can’t remember instructions, don’t remember daily tasks unless they’re written in my diary yet can write a full poem in my head!

Do you have any writing rituals?

I do carry a notebook at all times, just in case I get a random idea that I just can’t fully form in my head yet, so I know it’s been safely recorded for another time.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

How beautiful my culture is, how threatened it is by the constant negative press we receive and how poetry can be daft and make you laugh sometimes. My ideal reader would be open minded.

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